A Qualitative Inquiry Into the Sources of Resilience Found Among Maximum Security Correctional Officers

Published date01 April 2023
Date01 April 2023
Subject MatterArticles
Criminal Justice Policy Review
2023, Vol. 34(3) 291 –315
© The Author(s) 2023
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/08874034221143750
A Qualitative Inquiry Into
the Sources of Resilience
Found Among Maximum
Security Correctional
Jon T.A. Gist1, Frank Ferdik2,
and Hayden P. Smith3
Resilient individuals are better able to cope with trauma, and overcome life’s
adversities. Correctional officers are routinely exposed to workplace stressors that
can be psychologically harmful. For these essential workers, resilience, therefore,
offers a way to counteract the aversive conditions of their employment. In light of
its importance in promoting mental wellness, studies have explored antecedents of
resilience, yet few of which were conducted among correctional officers. To address
this literature void, open-ended questionnaire data were collected from maximum-
security corrections officers (N = 193) working in a southeastern state to understand
the factors they believe most crucial in developing resilience. Respondents identified
seven key themes associated with resilience, including co-worker support, establishing
purpose in life, individual characteristics, self-care, life balance, prayer/meditation, and
finally, maintaining positive attitudes. Results are discussed in light of interventions
targeted at improving correctional officer mental health.
correctional officer, prison, health and wellness, resilience, trauma
1Internal Revenue Service, Washington, DC, USA
2Austin Peay State University, Clarksville, TN, USA
3University of South Carolina, Columbia, USA
Corresponding Author:
Frank Ferdik, Assistant Professor, Department of Criminal Justice, Austin Peay State University, P.O. Box
4454, Clarksville, TN 37044, USA.
Email: ferdikf@apsu.edu
1143750CJPXXX10.1177/08874034221143750Criminal Justice Policy ReviewGist et al.
292 Criminal Justice Policy Review 34(3)
Human capital is the lifeblood that sustains any successful organization. Personnel
employed across multiple professional sectors such as education, health care, and
manufacturing, for instance, produce invaluable work that allows their respective
agencies to operate (Gentry & Dietz, 2020; Winwood et al., 2013). Absent these vital
human resources, many industries would cease to exist. Within the penal system, it is
the correctional officer (herein CO) who is charged with balancing responsibilities
designed to uphold institutional security and the effective operations of their facilities,
while also addressing the needs of incarcerated populations. Often with limited or non-
existent resources, officers working in the correctional system are asked to regulate
inmate behavior, search cells for contraband and other illicit items, disrupt physical
altercations, and respond to administrative requests that can at times be demanding
and conflicting (Ferdik et al., 2014). Responsibilities fulfilled by COs are so integral
to corrections systems that some have declared these frontline bureaucrats to be “the
single most important resource available to any correctional agency” (Archambeault
& Archambeault, 1982, p. 72).
It has been well documented that, despite their invaluable contributions, COs work
in an extremely hazardous profession that poses considerable risk to their mental
health. This may include exposure to violent and potentially fatal interactions between
incarcerated populations and staff (Ferdik, 2016; Lahm, 2009). COs may also encoun-
ter inmates who engage in serious self-injurious or suicidal behaviors (Konrad et al.,
2005; Smith, 2015). Other occupational and organizational stressors corrections offi-
cers are routinely exposed to include working nontraditional shifts requiring extended
hours on their feet, perceiving and responding to danger across their work environ-
ment, and negotiating workplace role conflict and role ambiguity (Lavender & Todak,
2021; Steiner & Wooldredge, 2015).
Experiencing any of these adverse working conditions can create significant mental
health challenges for COs, such as developing anxiety, emotional exhaustion, panic
disorder, and/or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) (Dowden & Tellier, 2004;
Ferdik & Smith, 2017; Fusco et al., 2021). Officers suffering from these conditions are
more likely to require absences from work or voluntarily resign altogether, thus creat-
ing negative consequences for their institutions such as increases in inmate misbehav-
ior, higher inmate-to-staff ratios, and fiscal constraints for administrators (Ferdik &
Smith, 2017). To date, there has been a reliance on addressing these challenges via
piecemeal interventions. For example, mental health services have been used to coun-
teract the negative effects of correctional work, yet these strategies frequently occur
after a traumatic event, and many have been rated as ineffective at helping officers
deal with the everyday challenges of their job (Winwood et al., 2013). A more holistic
approach used to support the mental health of COs requires scholarly assessments of
key health concepts, such as resilience.
A derivative of positive psychology, resilience has been defined as “the process
of negotiating, managing and adapting to significant sources of stress or trauma”
(Windle, 2011, p. 331). Different from recovery that involves a period of grief fol-
lowing some type of emotional upheaval, resilience, instead, reflects the ability to
maintain a stable equilibrium without suffering negative mental health effects after

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